The Garinger High School greenhouse is filled with dozens of lettuce plants and four large water tanks of tilapia. "Be careful around the fish. If we get too close, they get scared and try to jump out," Emely Hernandez said. Less than five minutes later, three or four tilapia splashed near the surface, so she and her coworker, Camila Tarlton, pull the lid back over the tank.
Emely, a senior at South Mecklenburg High School, and Camila, a senior at Bradford Preparatory School, both participated in the 2021 Mayors Youth Employment Program (MYEP). They were employed by 100 Gardens, a nonprofit with the goal of establishing 100 aquaponic gardens and programming in local schools.
Both Emely and Camila are interested in environmental science, so working with 100 Gardens and aquaponics was an opportunity for them to further their interest and passion for sustainability. Aquaponics is a method of farming that raises edible fish alongside crops. The fish provide nutrients in the water through their waste, which vegetables use and then return fresh water back to the fish. This symbiotic environment allows for the recycling of water as well as growing fresh food for local communities.
As part of their MYEP experience, Emely and Camila helped construct the first vertical garden at 100 Gardens, which is based out of the Innovation Barn. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they would go to different greenhouses at Garinger High School and Myers Park High School to harvest the crops, take care of the fish, and monitor the water.
"I've never had a job before, and I thought this would be a good way to get my first job experience and it would look good on my resume," Camila said. "I think this [experience] has really helped me choose a pathway that I want to go into. I'm really into environmental science, and this is something that fits my interest."
Importantly, this MYEP experience helped the students understand that there are many different opportunities, even within sustainability, that they could pursue.
"What we do is somewhat spontaneous – we do a lot of different things here, and I like to try different things," Camila said.
"[Aquaponics] definitely doesn't just teach about science. It teaches about math, it teaches about entrepreneurship, it teaches about business. You get all of it," Emely said. "It's also taught me there's a lot more to environmental science. There are different components — what's the science behind it, what's the technology behind it. It helps me learn what I want to do in the future, and maybe there's something different I can do with it," she continued.
"I never thought I'd be doing something like this. We learn a lot about water science and water quality. We do a lot with pH and temperature and checking on the fish," Emely said. "I'm interested in sustainability, and [this experience] helps strength my passion for environmental science."
Since 1986, the MYEP has served thousands of high school students by placing them into work experiences that increase their social capital, enhance opportunities for economic mobility, and help build the hard and soft skills needed for our future workforce. In 2021, 455 students and 52 host employers participated in the MYEP. As a cohort, students worked nearly 48,000 hours and collectively earned more than $484,000. Learn more about the MYEP.